When the weather outside turns frightful this year, residents will be thinking of the cost of warming those long winter nights.
And utilities companies say consumers will pay more for heat.
Higher heating costs have been a topic of fall conversation to rival summer discussions about $2-per-gallon gasoline prices. Homeowners have been advised to expect higher costs this heating season. Like storms colliding, the expected higher prices may coincide with a more traditional winter -- which means colder weather.
The National Weather Service predicts the winter of 2001 will see temperatures about seven degrees colder than last winter.
Reliant Energy Minnegasco, headquartered in Minneapolis, stated the cost of natural gas has been increasing from the company's suppliers and that prices are expected to remain high "especially if winter temperatures are colder than they've been in recent years."
Natural gas prices are at a 20-year high. Minnegasco attributes part of the increase to rising consumption and lower supplies. Minnegasco also reported that while natural gas production is increasing, it is unlikely those supplies will make a difference for several months, about the equivalent of a Minnesota winter.
Officials with Minnegasco and Xcel Energy, formerly Northern States Power Co., said greater use of natural gas by industrial companies with multiple fuel capabilities and electric power generators are contributing to the demand.
Hot summer temperatures in Texas and California meant a higher than average electric load as customers sought relief and that used more of the basin gas supply, said Marcie Driscoll, Xcel Energy spokeswoman.
An active hurricane season in the gas-producing Gulf of Mexico and utilities that put off buying to replenish winter supplies this summer in hopes of lower prices are also some of the reasons listed.
Greater demand expected with a traditional winter is meeting a smaller supply and creating higher prices. Utilities noted they are just passing the added cost on to the consumer and not creating additional fees themselves.
Driscoll said customers are paying what utilities pay for natural gas, which accounts for about 60 percent of the actual bill. Other charges relate to getting the gas to the consumer.
With the natural gas use driving the bulk of the monthly bill, consumers have an opportunity to affect the payments through conservation.
"If temperatures return to normal this winter gas bills will be higher than in the past two years," Minnegasco noted.
Residential customers who paid up to $600 per year to power companies can expect a 30 percent to 35 percent increase or another $200 this year.
Prices could be even higher, depending on the winter temperatures.
Scott Hults, manager of gas supply planning for Xcel Energy in Minnesota, said in a news release that in September the price of natural gas per unit of energy-or therm is up nearly 32 percent over the price a year ago for residential customers.
The Xcel Energy estimate assumes a 30 percent to 45 percent increase in the cost per therm and an 8 percent increase in natural gas use over last winter. The estimate also assumes this winter will be colder.
A typical Xcel Energy residential customer in Minnesota can expect to pay about $30 to $45 per month more to heat a home.
Dave Carlson, master service technician with Minnegasco, said the company is encouraging residents to consider the budget plan this winter.
Customers on budget plans -- with fixed monthly natural gas bills spreading payments throughout most of the year instead of paying larger bills during the winter -- began seeing increases in their July statements.
Less than half of Minnegasco customers currently use the budget plan.
Natural gas customers are likely to have company when it comes to seeing increases. Lowell Bohlke, owner of Dick Parks Gas Co. in Nisswa, said he has no idea what to expect in propane prices. Propane currently costs about $1.15 per gallon, which is up from an 80-cent-per-gallon price a year ago.
Before the cold arrives in earnest, residents can help their winter heating bill by putting on storm windows and finding air leaks in their homes. Cracks or gaps around windows and doors can lead to heat loss and cold air drafts. Minnegasco notes a "very leaky home can cost up to 40 percent more to heat or cool because of air leaks."
Sealing leaks may mean adding weather stripping or putting additional insulation in the attic.
Automatic thermostats can be programmed to adjust room temperatures on a schedule assuring a warm house by the time those morning alarm clocks go off.
Programmable thermostats can also lower the temperature after residents leave for work or school and then turn the heat back up before everyone returns at days end. Minnegasco notes the energy savings from programmable thermostats usually pay for their cost within one to two years. Programmable thermostats can range in cost from $30 to $80, the natural gas companies reported.
Under Minnesota's Cold Weather Rule, which is in effect annually from Oct. 15 through April 15, residential customers who work out a payment schedule or who qualify for low-income payment plans can avoid having their natural gas service disconnected for non-payment. Individuals can contact area energy assistance programs to find a program that will help.
For most residents responsible for paying the heating bill, dressing warmly and regulating the heat are likely to help deflect part of the increase.
Driscoll said: Anytime you conserve or try and save energy its going to effect what you are going to pay for it.
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